Wednesday, June 27, 2012

cold fish

Oftentimes when I'm doing some of my fiction writing different idioms pop up from somewhere in the nether regions of my brain, and naturally I start wondering where they originated, like "cold fish", for example. That one just came up.  Luckily, the Internet provides instant gratification (assuming the reference source is accurate)...

I found information at about it, which also listed its references (other dictionaries - maybe an infinite regression of them?).  Apparently it was William Shakespeare who coined the term, in The Winter's Tale, spoken by Autolycus, the peddler, Act IV, Scene IV, who's peddling ballads:

"Here's another ballad, of a fish that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the fourscore of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids: it was thought she was a woman, and was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her. The ballad is very pitiful, and as true."

Maybe the guy who loved her was fishy or looked like a fish, and that's why she rejected him (I'm assuming it's a guy that got rejected since the ballad is about the "hard hearts of maids").

According to, though, the term only caught on in the 1900s.  I wonder what that story was.  The only reference I could find was in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, which lists the term as in popular use in the 1930s.

On a related note, a website I really like to use to read up on idioms and phrases is The Phrase Finder.  "Cold fish" wasn't in their database, though.

Friday, June 15, 2012

John McWhorter - The Story of Human Language

The latest from my lecture-listening is from The Great Courses series, The Story of Human Language, given by Professor John McWhorter now of Columbia University.  I've really enjoyed the Great Courses over the years, and this one was definitely no exception.

McWhorter provides what I thought was quite a comprehensive overview of language in all its diversity and similarities, reviewing the development, evolution, and devolution of language, and the various controversies and topical interests as of 2004, when the lectures were produced.  I can see why The Teaching Company had him contribute to their productions; he's a very engaging lecturer.  I even got to learn some about his cat, Laura, who likes to sit in his open suitcase when he's trying to pack.  Sadly, though, at this point, I have no idea in what context he mentioned his cat, other than it may have had something to do with why critters - and humans - do idiosyncratic things...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Josephine Tey - Brat Farrar

I just finished re-reading Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, published in 1950.  Talk about masterful.  Wow.  Funny, I mis-remembered the plot from when I last read it, which was something like a bazzilion years ago.

Brat Farrar, an itinerant orphan, carries an uncanny resemblance to Simon Ashby, who is about to turn 21 and inherit his family's country estate.  Brat is drawn into the Ashby family circle, posing as Patrick Ashby, Simon's older twin, who was thought to have committed suicide at the age of 13.

The mystery isn't about whether Brat is Patrick - it's a given that he isn't - but rather gradually uncovers the unanswered questions around Patrick Ashby's death and culminating in quite a shocking conclusion.

Yet much of the story centers around Brat's impersonation - his motivation for doing so, his ongoing ethical struggles about it, and his interactions with the other characters.  This aspect of the story is compelling and done in a believable way.  The different characters are so wonderfully drawn out.  It's easy to get complacent as reader and think that's all it's about.  All along, though, Tey is maneuvering the reader to the point of realizing that there is a mystery to be solved, gradually building up an undercurrent of danger and menace.

Reading this book made me have the unoriginal thought that writers (and aspiring writers) have it both easier and more difficult than genre writers from the past.  Earlier writers were essentially inventing the genre, and having to invent much more on their own, while many writers now can get away with being a derivative or piecemeal of earlier works, shifting and rearranging characters and plot elements like building blocks or a jigsaw puzzle with different solutions.

On the flip side of that argument, why it might be more difficult now, so many variations on theme, ingenious twists in plot and characters, and genre-crossing have been exhausted already that it's hard to come up with anything that seems fresh enough to capture interest.